“On a certain day there came to our house at Mānā a man named Pokipala who worked for the government, who had come to fetch Koʻolau to be seen by the doctor because he had been observed by one who had suspected that he had leprosy, the royal disease, the disease that separated families.” – Piʻilani
The epic story of Kaluaikoʻolau (Koʻolau), a paniolo from Kauaʻi stricken with leprosy who, along with his family, evaded authorities in Kalalau Valley for three years has been made into a feature-length film that will open at the Consolidated Theatres Ward in Honolulu on Nov. 4.
Called The Wind & The Reckoning, the film is directed by David L. Cunningham (To End All Wars – 2001; Running for Grace – 2018) and stars Jason Scott Lee as Koʻolau (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story – 1994; Mulan – 2020), and Lindsey Anuhea Watson as Piʻilani (Finding ʻOhana – 2021). The screenplay was written by John Fusco (Young Guns – 1988; Thunderheart – 1992; Hidalgo – 2004).
The film is based on The True Story of Kaluaikoʻolau, a memoir written by Piʻilani in 1906 about the years she spent with her husband and son hiding in Kalalau Valley.
Shortly after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, agents of the “provisional government” were ordered to round up Hawaiians suspected of having contracted leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) and banish them to the colony at Kalaupapa. It was a cruel policy that ripped families apart separating husbands and wives; parents and children.
Koʻolau and his young son, Kaleimanu (played by newcomer Kahiau Perreira), had contracted the dreaded disease, but the family refused to be separated. Instead, they became fugitives, evading government authorities for three years until Koʻolau’s death in 1896. Their defiance of the government – in the shadow of the overthrow of the kingdom – became the stuff of legend.
It is a heartbreaking tale of love, family, sacrifice, courage and resistance.
Director Cunningham said that the movie was 20 years in the making. “I was visiting a friend of mine, John Fusco, who is a prolific screenwriter. We were riding at his farm in Vermont and he asked ‘David, have you ever heard about Koʻolau, the paniolo that got leprosy?’ And I was embarrassed because I grew up in Hawaiʻi – Iʻm a Konawaena grad, I love studying history – and I hadn’t heard about Koʻolau. He told me the story and said, ‘we should make a movie about this.’”
The idea took hold and for years, Cunningham tried to get the movie made, tapping contacts and friends within the industry, one of whom was Steve McEveety, the executive producer for the classic Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart.
“When he [McEveety] heard about the story of Koʻolau, he said ‘This is Hawaiʻi’s Braveheart,’” recalled Ted Liu, a co-producer for the film.
Although he did not have the budget for a blockbuster on the scale of Braveheart, Cunningham was nevertheless able to pull together funding for the project and secure actors for the lead roles. But when two of those actors were tapped by Paramount and Disney – with whom they were under contract – for bigger projects, things fell apart and again the movie was put on hold.
Then the pandemic happened, and the world locked down.
“Everyone in the film industry was sitting around, bummed out and unable to be productive,” said Cunningham. “I went back to the script and thought to myself, this story is about a pandemic. We’ve got to do this now.”
Cunningham called his partners to pitch a new approach. “I said what if we scrape together what we can and get the cast and crew to all work for the same amount – and all the ‘above the line guys’ – the writer, producers, director – we wave our fees and do this as a passion project?”
His idea was to create a “bubble” to film in during the pandemic by having the cast and crew live together for the duration at an off-the-grid 55-acre ranch in Kohala.
Their next hurdle was finding people willing to work under these conditions. “We got Wainani Young-Tomich to be a co-producer and our first assistant director,” said Cunningham. “She’s one of the top people in the state. Then Angela LaPrete from Hawaiʻi Five-0, another top producer.”
They decided not to go public or go to casting directors. Instead, they used their own personal networks and started making calls to find actors and crew willing to be part of the project.
One of the biggest challenges was getting the permits to make a film in the middle of the pandemic – they were the first filmmakers to do so. It was a complicated process but in the end, Cunningham and his team set the standard for filming during COVID-19. “We got really strict. We had five full-time people for COVID-related testing. Everyone was tested three times a week. We used masks, PPE (personal protective equipment), all of that.”
From the start, Cunningham wanted ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi to be used in all the dialogue between Native Hawaiian characters. The team was supportive but knew that would be a challenge. Although most of the ʻŌiwi actors were familiar with the language, the only cast member who was actually fluent was Perreira (Kaleimanu), a Hawaiian language immersion student.
To address this deficit, Cunningham brought in Leinaʻala Fruean as a cultural advisor. Fruean is the director of the Hāleo Hawaiʻi Language program. She, along with cultural advisors Kauhane Heloca, Kaʻea Lyons and Naʻauao Vivas began working with the actors on phrasing and pronunciation, at first via Zoom, then they later joined the cast and crew in the filming bubble.
For the ʻŌiwi cast members, the kuleana of delivering their lines authentically in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi was not taken lightly.
“I graduated from Kamehameha and was taught a basic understanding of the language but [this] was a whole different challenge,” said Watson (Piʻilani). “Not only were we learning the dialogue, we had to be mindful of the cadence, inflection, pitch and pronunciation. I won’t lie – there was a lot of weight on my shoulders because I wanted to make sure I did right by the language and my culture.”
Hollywood heavyweight Lee (Koʻolau) said that learning the language was both an asset to getting into character as well as an obstacle. “In order to reshape how to pronounce the sounds took weeks of repetition. Working with Hawaiian dialect teachers specific to the area and time period to make the language feel and sound authentic in performance was a monumental task,” he said.
Hoku Pavao Jones who plays Keawe said “The challenge for me was speaking the language as they did during that time and in the Niʻihau way which is much faster with less lilt than what we are used to hearing today. It was such an honor to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi that I wanted to do it justice – which meant practicing the same sentence for an hour or more!”
“Speaking ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi was such an honor. This is my first movie role and the fact that I got to speak the language of my kūpuna gives me chicken skin,” said Stuart Featheran, Jr., who plays Paoa. “I don’t speak fluently, but every time I attempted to, it reminded me of when I got to converse with my Grandma Kamaile with the little bit that I did know.”
Filming for The Wind & The Reckoning took about six weeks altogether and was shot in late 2020 during the height of the pandemic almost entirely on the Kohala ranch that served as the bubble for the cast and crew. “After we cut the film [and the lockdown ended] we were able to film outside of our bubble, so things like the opening paniolo roundup were shot later,” said Cunningham.
They also used visual effects shots to bring Kauaʻi to Hawaiʻi. “We’ve got shots of the Nāpali Coast in the background and married that with Kohala,” he explained.
In addition to the ‘Ōiwi leads, the film’s extras were all local and much of the music for the film was performed by the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus under the direction of Choral Master Lynell K. Bright. To keep to the budget, Cunningham tapped family members to help – including his wife, Judith, a makeup artist, who took the lead on creating the prosthetic leprosy makeup.
Overall, it was an opportunity for local talent to shine. “We were a 100% Hawaiʻi crew,” said Cunningham. “Iʻve shot around the world, and this crew was kicking! They’re right up there with the crews I’ve worked with in London, L.A., and Vancouver.”
With an eye on the long game, co-producer Liu hopes to empower local creative people to hone their crafts and find success globally. “Creativity is Hawaiʻi’s greatest asset,” said Liu. “We have a storytelling culture – the host culture, the amalgamation of cultures – we have already developed lots of creative products that we don’t get enough credit for, from music and fashion to fusion cuisine.”
Liu saw that same passion in Cunningham. “I saw what he was trying to do – his heart for Hawaiʻi to not only create intellectual property that is about Hawaiʻi but owned by Hawaiʻi so that we get all the benefits. His heart is to train the next generation of professionals – not only storytellers, but the people behind and in front of the camera, and turn these stories into products with national and global appeal.”
“Hawaiʻi has a long history of TV and film. But it’s mostly been used as a backdrop for its jungles and beaches,” added Cunningham. “Very few of the stories of this place have been told.”
For the ʻŌiwi actors, their involvement in the project and helping to tell this particular story amidst a global pandemic was a deeply moving experience.
“As a Hawaiian woman it was a connection to the collective trauma that our people endured. I’m so grateful to be part of this incredibly powerful story. Our story,” Pavao Jones reflected.
“This story is one of the few triumphant stories from the terrible time of leprosy and the overthrow in Hawaiʻi,” said Watson. “Koʻolau and Piʻilani were powerful, strong-willed Hawaiians who rebelled against the intrusive provisional government and prevailed. They refused to bow down to the men that invaded our lands and banished our culture. The first time I read this story I felt very emotional and as I learned more, I felt an immense sense of pride as a Hawaiian.”